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How to Get People to Adopt More Climate-Friendly Behaviors

9:41 AM PDT on April 29, 2011

Dear sustainability advocate: I know you are tired.

You spend your life looking climate apocalypse in the eye and knowing that human behavior needs to change to avert catastrophe. But are humans changing their behavior? Not fast enough.

And why not? You’ve started carpooling and weatherized your house and it wasn’t so hard. So why don’t your neighbors get it? Why aren’t they doing anything?

These questions have unleashed a new field of climate change-related behavioral science. I write now from its epicenter: the Garrison Institutesymposium on Climate, Cities and Behavior in New York’s Hudson Valley. The idea is to figure out what mental processes are at work when people decide to change something in their own lives for the greater good – specifically, for the environment. After all, cities can set emissions reductions targets all they want but they need people to actually reduce their emissions to meet their goals. And no one can force your neighbors to turn off their air conditioners. They’ll have to make that decision themselves.

Here are some strategies, from the behavioral scientists to you:

Attitudes follow behavior, not the other way around

Here’s what we wish would happen: Joe Schmo stumbles upon a brilliantly researched and written article in, oh I don’t know, Streetsblog, for example, that convinces him that climate change is real and dangerous and that he needs to do something. So he ditches his car and starts riding a bike to work. That’s an unlikely scenario, sadly. Maybe it’s because people get defensive when their lifestyle is criticized before they’re ready to give it up. Anyway, the more likely scenario is that Joe Schmo already rides a bike, maybe for exercise, maybe because he lives in a compact city that doesn’t require a car. When someone comes around trying to gather support for green cities, he gets on board – he already feels like he’s got skin in that game.

People aren’t scared enough yet by climate change.

We’re wired to feel real fear and urgency around threats that are present right now. Though the effects of climate change are being felt already all around us, from extreme weather to damaged crops, it still lacks the urgency needed to catalyze immediate and dramatic action.

When people do get scared, they get overwhelmed.

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